Saffire–The Uppity Blues Women

Alligator 4811

Saffire–The Uppity Blues Women have been hailed as a refreshingly contemporary version of the classic women blues singers of the 30s and been criticized as a one-trick pony whose act will eventually grow stale. The Uppities are folksy but only occasionally do they become earnestly righteous. In a relatively short time they’ve built up a loyal following reminiscent of the legion of aspiring Wild Women Who Don’t Have the Blues who attached themselves early on to Bonnie Raitt. More recently Saffire’s instrumental prowess has shown encouraging signs of being able to stand on its own.

Yet some observers still maintain that two (formerly three) self-proclaimed “middle-aged” women, hummin’ and strummin’ the blues with a modicum of flash and a major investment of emotional commitment and braggadocio, are more of a novelty act than a lasting contribution to the blues heritage. The question, stripped of any ageist or sexist baggage, is legitimate: is enough going on here, in purely musical terms, to warrant the kudos this band has received?

The group seem to recognize the problem. Publicity for their new Alligator release, BroadCasting, emphasizes repeatedly that what some once thought of as a gimmick has grown into a full-fledged musical flower, full of subtleties and delights far removed from any posing. On a more musical level, steps have been taken to fatten the group’s sound: bassist Earlene Lewis–a buoyant onstage presence whose musicianship didn’t always keep up with the band’s ambitions–has been replaced, at least temporarily, by Larry Gray, and Chicago guitarist Steve Freund contributes to one cut here. Most promisingly, violinist-mandolinist Andra Faye McIntosh, who’s currently touring with the group, provides some much-needed depth and variety.

Meanwhile, the two leaders seem increasingly comfortable in their dual role as musicians and performers: Ann Rabson’s piano style continues to develop in both sureness and imagination, and she’s begun to showcase her Piedmont fingerpicking guitar work more prominently. Gaye Adegbalola remains the aural and visual focus with her resonant alto, repertoire of vocal nuances, exotic appearance (hair cut at razor-sharp angles, flamboyant African-style jewelry), lithe movements, and acrobatic dance routines. The Uppity Blues Women, at their best, approach the good-timey, hokum blues style perfected by Lester Melrose’s Bluebird label in Chicago in the 30s and 40s–the recordings of Big Bill Broonzy, Washboard Sam, and their contemporaries.

On BroadCasting, though, it takes a while for the new, improved Saffire sound to manifest itself. The first several numbers cover familiar territory–they’re proclamations of womanly strength and sexual independence, laced with a righteous sense of outrage. Aficionados of classic blues (or, for that matter, of Millie Jackson or Denise LaSalle) may find Saffire’s presentation somewhat mannered and anomalous, but the band’s core audience will enjoy their folk-oriented, good-natured female strutting filtered through the safe focus of historicity and novelty. Adegbalola delivers everything in a theatrical, roof-rattling shout.

“OBG Why Me Blues,” a paean to the discomforts visited upon women by an unfeeling male-dominated health-care system, merits some special recognition for both its topicality and its wittiness (“I know what’s in store for me when I’m back in the saddle again… / my feet are in the stirrups, wish somebody else was in my shoes…”). Yet one wonders whether a mainstream blues audience, raised on irony and nurtured by existential doubt, will be receptive to a song that is so self-righteous.

It’s not until “Evil Hearted Me” that things advance beyond the formulaic. Ann Rabson takes lead vocal on this one and her voice, though technically no match for Adegbalola’s, is in some ways the better blues instrument: it wraps itself around the material with the snugness of a homemade scarf, and its unschooled spontaneity often sounds more heartfelt than Adegbalola’s theatrical wail.

Adegbalola, meanwhile, shines on more musically and lyrically ambitious offerings. “If It Had Been a Dog…” is a powerful statement of social protest worthy of Sweet Honey in the Rock: it’s shot through with a feeling of ominousness akin to the spine-tingling sense of portent in John Coltrane’s “Alabama.” Adegbalola sings her litany of social ills in a powerful scream of anguished rage, and when she concludes with a prayer for a better day by reprising Leroy Carr’s “Hurry down sunshine” as “Go down sunshine,” she transforms Carr’s wistful melancholy into a defiant command–you almost expect the sun to bow and do her bidding.

Her shining moment, and perhaps Saffire’s most perfectly realized creation to date, is “Miz Thang.” This is the flag-waving, flame-throwing anthem this band has been searching for since they started out, a bitingly witty updating of the traditional hoodoo-laden “I’m a Man / I’m a Woman” boasting–“I wear Queen of Sheba perfume, I got Cleopatra’s eyes / Nefertiti’s hairdo and I’m Queen Latifah wise… / If you curse me I will kiss you with my warm and juicy lips / then lay my hands upon you with electric fingertips… / If you like my peaches, c’mon and rub my fuzz / I’ll share with you the power, the wonder, and the love…” Written when Adegbalola was recovering from life-threatening surgery last summer, it sounds like a declaration from the heart. Her voice is perfectly suited to this kind of flamboyant, imagery-laden showpiece. McIntosh’s fiery gypsy fiddle adds exactly what this band needs to put its message over with musical as well as lyrical power–it’s playful yet deadly serious, and tinged with magic.

Adegbalola’s other anthem of survival, “It’s Alright for a Man to Cry,” is a tough-minded testimonial made strong by both her uncompromising edge-of-tears wail and Rabson’s piano accompaniment, which combines a New Orleans 6/8 roll with gospely soulfulness. The message of the song might seem a bit obvious at this late stage in the postfeminist era–I remember Rosey Grier doing the same kind of thing on a kids’ TV show back in the 60s or 70s, and it was arguably more effective to see a 300-pound lineman break into tears on camera than it is to hear Adegbalola’s lecture.

But Adegbalola sounds for all the world as if she’s really singing it to a tearful son. Rabson’s keyboard work here is as immediate and forceful as any she’s ever recorded; it’s obvious that she’s pouring her soul into it for her friend. That easy bond of intimacy is, in fact, one of this band’s most attractive and sustaining qualities.

It’s another of this group’s strengths that they’re as willing to show their vulnerability as they are proud of their power. Victories on the battlefield of romance are almost always at least a little Pyrrhic, and on “Nobody’s Fool” Adegbalola has both the honesty and courage to acknowledge this as she sings of “getting over” a recalcitrant lover whom she obviously hasn’t gotten over at all.

Rabson sounds even more at home than Adegbalola on this kind of material. On “Seemed Like Such a Good Idea at the Time” she complements her singing with a powerful, churchy piano accompaniment that buttresses the despair of the lyrics with an undercurrent of power and optimism. The song’s pristine arrangement shows off her musicianship to perfect advantage.

The only thing Saffire seems hesitant to do is to showcase itself as a purely musical act. “Ragtime Rag” features delightful piano from Rabson–controlled and melodic, with the classic ragtime fusion of abandon and elegance–and the lyrics are unusually brash, even for Saffire:

When times are bad they could be much worse

If my baby had the curse

So let him ride the rag one time for me

He don’t know pain, be don’t know stress

That visitor makes quite a mess

Let him ride the rag one time for me…

I’d make him holler, make him shout,

Learn what monthly pain is all about

If he’d ride the rag one time for me

I would give him cramps, make him shake

His head and back and belly’d ache

If he’d ride the rag one time for me…

Still, one wishes Rabson had been given the opportunity to shine unembellished all the way through.

The Uppity Blues Women seem most comfortable with their feisty women’s anthems. Rabson’s “Don’t Treat Your Man Like a Dog,” far from being a sop to long-suffering boyfriends or husbands, suggests that a dog will come through for you more faithfully than a man will, and so deserves better treatment (“If you spoil your man he’ll be chasing after every bitch who wags her tail his way…”). At times Rabson can’t quite find the right balance of wit and rhetoric–pedantic-sounding lines like “statistics show you probably need protection from him” could probably have been reworked. However, the song is sure to get a standing ovation from the Saffire faithful.

Finally, just when you think you’ve heard blues lyrics about every conceivable topic, Adegbalola signs off with “Shake the Dew Off the Lily”–an outrageous bit of scatalogical humor that brings new meaning to the term bathroom joke. But whether you think “Lily” is daringly risque or maddeningly juvenile, it’s the song’s full-bodied accompaniment that’s most encouraging: Larry Gray’s bass slithers and thumps all over the place while McIntosh’s tubular, sure-fingered mandolin weaves in and out of Adegbalola’s guitar comping and Rabson plays Professor Longhair-inspired rhumba bass patterns and descending treble rolls. Next time, if they can summon a little more musical bravery and a few new lyrical conceits, we may finally see Saffire blossom into a modern-day incarnation of a Bluebird-era blues band.